Arcing to Arcturus

On July 13, 1977, at 8:37 p.m., a lightning strike at the Buchanan South electrical substation on New York’s Hudson River tripped two circuit breakers.  At the time, Buchanan South was meant to be converting 345,000 volts of electricity from the Indian Point nuclear plant to lower voltage, but a loose locking nut, combined with a faulty upgrade cycle, meant that the breaker wasn’t able to reclose and allow power to resume flowing.

When a second lightning strike caused two more 345,000 volt transmission lines to fail, only one reclosed properly, resulting in a loss of power from Indian Point and the over-loading of two more major transmission lines.  Con Edison tried to initiate fast-start generation at 8:45 p.m., but no one was overseeing the station, and the remote start failed.

At that point, the lights went out at 123rd and Broadway, on the upper West Side of Manhattan. I just had returned from my time in Liberia, and was visiting friends before heading to California.  We’d finished dinner and were enjoying the twin pleasures of good conversation and the view from their Morningside Gardens apartment, when all of New York simply disappeared.

It’s common enough for storms to cause lights to flicker and dim, and not unknown for power to go out in a neighborhood even without a storm.  Transformers explode, winds bring down power lines, squirrels play tag, and through it all people sigh and complain, wondering how long it will be until they can once again make coffee, turn on the computer, or watch tv in air-conditioned comfort.

But that night in Manhattan, in the moments between Con Ed’s failed re-start and the lighting of the first arson fires in the street, we knew something was different. Looking down from our perch, we watched traffic come to a halt as astounded drivers tried to get their bearings and control their anxiety. Scanning the horizon, we found there was no horizon: only a black, impenetrable abyss.

The night seemed never to end. The vibrato of the sirens, the delicate horror of shattering glass, the ebb and flow of crowds around piles of merchandise looted from bodegas and coffee shops were utterly surreal. Lit by the glow of flames and surrounded by smoke from burning tires, the scene might have been mistaken for an etching by Albrecht Dürer.

Eventually, as the fires began to be extinguished and the thinning crowds seemed to be losing their enthusiasm for mayhem, we rested, three sleeping as one kept watch, and all of us wondering what might be next.

As the first tendrils of light began to wrap themselves around buildings and climb down into the streets, the sense of relief was palpable.  Civilization’s veneer had worn a bit thin over the night, not only because of the arson and looting which erupted in the darkness, but also because of the darkness itself.  As we plunged into that inexplicable abyss, candles and flashlights did nothing to allay fears so primitive  only the rising of the sun could bring release.

In the morning brilliance, the entire city seemed to stretch, heaving a vast sigh of relief. On the street, someone opened a fire hydrant, allowing a faucet’s worth of water to stream down, gentle and benign.  Filled with sudden good humor and ready to trade stories, New Yorkers lined up with soap and towels, toothbrushes, wash basins and razors, prepared to become human again.

Thinking back to that night, I remember my response with absolute clarity.  I wished nothing more than to go back to Liberia.  Today, I might not be so eager. But at the time, looking down into those chaos-filled streets, the West African bush seemed preferable to “civilization” in any number of ways, not the least of which was the quality of its darkness.

My first experience of darkness as blessing came during childhood. Dressed for midwestern safari, I’d clamber into the car beside my dad, and off we’d go. Traveling country roads, we’d roam as far from the lights of our little town as we could. In summer, we’d pull out quilts and lay on the ground, amazing ourselves with the bright river of stars streaming across the sky.  If it was cold and snowy, we’d wrap blankets around ourselves for extra warmth, drink hot chocolate and admire Orion, my favorite winter constellation. 

I learned the constellations first — Orion,  the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, Scorpio. Later, I began to learn the stars — Antares, Aldebaran, Polaris, Betelgeuse, Sirius — and little verses that helped searchers find them in the sky.  “Arc to Arcturus, spike to Spica,” was a favorite mnemonic, and arc to Arcturus I did, gazing with passionate curiosity into mysteries that seemed close enough to touch.

Eventually, I began to grow up. Trips to country darkness became less frequent and adventures were measured in lumens.  Oblivious to light pollution, my friends and I were seekers of light. The bright lights of Broadway, the ambiance of San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore, even Paris, the City of Light, drew us out of our darkness like a cloud of great, fluttering moths.

If we were forced on occasion to settle for the lesser lights of Des Moines, Paducah or Evansville, no matter.  Our lives were arcing in new directions, and Arcturus was forgotten.

Forgotten that, is until years in the African bush and a newly-acquired taste for offshore sailing pulled me back into darkness, teaching me anew that star light can be enough. 

With no moon to obscure them, starlit paths cross land and sea. Night creatures scurry ahead of nearly invisible shadows, their paths lit by the flickering of uncounted, distant stars. Ribbons of spume stream across the waves, scarcely distinguishable from the milky river flowing through the sky.

When darkness falls as it did that night in New York City, it can be unnerving and awkward, occasionally frightening, and entirely capable of releasing a flood of darkness within the human soul. 

But there is another darkness, a more comfortable darkness, a darkness capable of enfolding the world like a velvet night. Sprinkled with bits of light and time, that darkness testifies to a reality far more expansive than human life itself.

Wrapped in that velvet night, secure as beloved children, our souls are free to rise up, arcing to Arcturus and beyond, toward galaxies beyond our sight and a universe beyond our understanding. 

Arcturus already is there, waiting at our vision’s edge.  We need only lift our eyes.

Edvard Munch ~ Summer Night on the Beach
 I live near the sea. On these summer nights
Arcturus is already there, steadfast
in the southwest. Standing at the edge of the grass,
I am beginning to connect them as once they were connected,
the fixity of stars and unruly salt water,
by sailors with an avarice for landfall.
From where I stand the sea is just a rumor.
The stars are put out by our street lamp. Light
and water are well separated. And yet
the surviving of the sea-captain in his granddaughter
is increasingly apparent. (More than life was lost
when he drowned in the Bay of Biscay. I never saw him.)
As I turn to go in, the hills grow indistinct as his memory.
The coast is near and darkening. The stars are clearer,
but shadows of the grass and house are lapping at my feet
when I see the briar rose, no longer blooming,
but rigged in the twilight as sails used to be –
lacy and stiff together, a frigate of ivory.

~ Eavan Boland  

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98 thoughts on “Arcing to Arcturus

  1. Linda,

    Living most of my adult life in Panama City, I’m surrounded by light most of the time. It’s obvious during the day which is bright due to our tropical geographical position and during the evenings which are flooded by lights emanating from the street lampposts, street signs or home lights.

    I don’t recall a dark night at least during my last forty years. It would be a nice experience to “see” darkness again. Changuinola was the only place I can recall being immersed in a sea of darkness with a lighted dome above. Never did learn the names of stars, constellations or planets.

    To this very day, I can only recognize the light of the moon at night. Sorry to say, but it’s true.

    I remember the incident of the blackout of New York you so brilliantly narrated. We commented the weird event at work with the rest of the coworkers.

    Thanks for the memories,


    1. Light certainly does vary from place to place, Omar. Even here, at certain times during the year, the humidity drops and Galveston shimmers during the day like a Mediterranean city.

      Unfortunately, I have the same problem as you when night arrives. I can see the moon, of course, and the brighter planets. I’ve been able to catch the space station crossing the sky, and two or three comets. But for stars or meteor showers, I have to get out and away, to places where the lovely, soft glow of Houston and the nearer petrochemical plants isn’t so intrusive.

      “Weird” is a good word for that blackout. We do become accustomed to our conveniences-become-necessities. It’s one reason the Gulf Coast is such a lucrative market for people who sell portable generators. What happened with Con Ed can happen with a hurricane, and in those circumstances, being able to power a refrigerator, a light bulb and a fan seems pretty luxurious.

      It’s been over five years since Hurricane Ike, and plenty of people have moved here in that time. I hope this isn’t the year they learn about total darkness.


    2. It’s never too late to learn the most prominent stars, Omar, especially now that there are computer programs and cell-phone apps that make it easier than ever before. The last time I visited Honduras, in 1978, I remember my excitement at using a star guide to pick out some of the highlights in the southern celestial hemisphere that aren’t visible from the United States.

      1. The problem where I live, is that the Panama City is too bright at night to clearly appreciate the stars in the sky. To study astronomy, I would have to travel to the countryside where the sky is clearer at night. But your point is well taken. Thanks,


  2. I remember the blackout, and I remember staring up at the sky without city lights to obscure the stars. Once in a while, I’m lucky enough to be able to watch a sunrise or sunset or meteor shower without the city lights and transmission lines to mar the view. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. It is a reason for gratitude to be able to see such things, isn’t it, Ruth? Sometimes I laugh at the morning hosts on a couple of our Houston radio shows. Their studios are high in a downtown building, and they can get caught up in describing the sunrise to us, instead of reporting the morning news. (Actually, that’s not always such a bad thing.)

      I need to spend more time outside at night, myself. Because my vision is declining, the day may come when I’ll not be able to see the stars so clearly or so easily. That’s when memories will become truly important — provided I still have my mind, of course.


  3. It seems we had similar midwest experiences with the night sky. It appears deep and in 3-D when no other lights interfere. Most of the time we see only a few of the familiar and bright stars. When the conditions are right, they are joined by legions of others.

    A few years ago, we visited the Grand Canyon in November for Thanksgiving. We walked to the lodge for dinner as it was getting dark. On our return to the cabin, we were feeling our way along the paved path with our feet. There were no lights anywhere. We laughed and stumbled along. At some point we looked up to the sky. There were so many stars we couldn’t make out the familiar constellations. It was awesome.

    1. Jim, those “other conditions” really make a difference here, as well. The best sky viewing is in fall and winter, when frontal passages drop the humidity. It’s still nothing like your Grand Canyon experience, but it helps.

      When I was traveling last fall, my timing was a little off. I’d hoped to see the same sort of sight on the Tallgrass Prairie, but a full moon was a bit of a hindrance. Of course the moonrise had its own charms — and it was amazing to see the land flooded with moonlight. That’s another experience city-dwellers miss.


    1. I suppose part of it’s learning what’s “out there” in the darkness, what’s a threat, and what isn’t. I still laugh when I remember my first experiences of being in the woods at night. At first, city-girl here imagined every noise was an axe murderer. Eventually, I figured out how to distinguish deer, raccoons, armadillos, and other such bumps in the night, and it was all good.

      I’ll still take a night in the woods over a blackout in the city, every time.


  4. Nice. I wrote a poem about sleeping outside, watching falling stars (the constellation of Orion my favorite) until “night rolled our sleeping mats into morning..” Thank you.

    1. Sleeping outside was such a treat for us as kids. Some of my southern/Texas friends grew up with sleeping porches, but they also would move their beds outside in the summer and sleep under the trees, all in an effort to keep cool(er).

      One lady, now gone, told me about the summer she and her sisters stopped wishing on falling stars. There just were too many, and they ran out of wishes!


  5. wow; you got me on many levels. I must have been in a fog when that happened in ’77 – one day before my birthday! As I read your story, I almost cried as I pondered how fast the monsters emerge when given a chance. I would have been on that Liberia express train of thought as well!

    Presently I’m sitting in the dark (!) and enjoying a blissfully-quiet evening. The shrimp ponds are quiet; the river is quiet; the ocean sounds pretty benign, and every so often a heron squawks while those precious stilts chatter just to hear themselves!

    A band of clouds often shrouds the equator, but when they clear, a carl sagan sky presides over the evening!

    We are so lucky – those of us who embrace the comfortable darkness!


    1. Light and darkness belong together. You know that as well as anyone, Z. When you share the process of “adding shadows” to your paintings with us, it’s truly magical. Adding that hint of darkness is what makes them come alive.

      I think part of what made the blackout experience so memorable is that I’d never seen violence like that, first-hand. After it all was over and I’d had some time for reflection, it seemed so ironic to me that I’d traveled Europe and Africa without fear, but felt fear once I was “home.” Of course, home can be a bit of an ambiguous term. I never was homesick in Liberia, but I was homesick for Liberia once I’d returned to the States. Complicated, we are.

      I’ve my own heron squawking tonight – he’s right where he always is. That’s part of the comfortable darkness, too.


      1. We’re passing the baton! I left jama at three this afternoon and arrived in the port city of manta after dark. i always miss the silence and the subtle background music of the birds. I’m glad that they’re singing a lullaby to you tonight! Tomorrow I’ll travel to guayaquil, and on wednesday – costa rica. I’m hoping that the olive ridley sea turtles will be nesting, though it’s early in the season.

        I was never homesick either, though I do miss ecuador when I am away.

    1. Oh, Gallivanta — believe me. Being able to recognize some of the stars and understanding them are two quite different things. And then there’s really being able to use them, as with celestial navigation. I never gave that a try, although I know people who still use it.

      What I do believe is that all that early attentiveness to the skies (not only stars, but also the sun and the moon) helped to develop my sense of direction. It’s wonderful to be able to look up and around, and feel oriented.

      I enjoyed the link to your dark sky reserve tremendously. I had no idea there is such a thing — or that the organization is headquartered in Tucson, Arizona. Our Ft. Davis, here in Texas, is one of the other places they listed. Also, there’s a place in Nevada that I’m sure must be wonderful.

      I looked at their links to the essay and poetry contest for the school kids, too. All in all, it seems quite a wonderful organization. Thanks for making me aware of it.


      1. Yes, I am sure you are right that having some knowledge of the skies helps develop our sense of direction. It’s lovely that there are dark sky reserves around the world. At Tekapo they were hoping for listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I think, but this Reserve seems a very good idea. In relation to the stars you may like this which I thought was wonderful.

        1. It is wonderful. One of your commenters mentioned seeing a German flag on the plane. In fact, the Germans are involved in the project. I’d heard about SOPHIA, probably from a mention on the Astronomy Picture of the Day site. Here’s a great early photo of her being constructed. Such ingenuity!

          I love that we’re exploring your southern skies, too. One of the great dreams of my life was to see the Southern Cross.
          Too much listening to Crosby, Stills and Nash, I suppose. But I finally got to see it, in the best of all possible ways: low on the horizon, at sea.

          1. What a wonderful site the APOD site is. I loved the photo of the Strawberry Moon taken on 13 June. And how did I ever miss the beautiful Southern Cross by Crosby, Stills and Nash? I am so glad you posted it. Speaking of the Southern Cross, I was looking through some of our old family photos yesterday and found two of Kingsford Smith’s plane Southern Cross. My mother, her sister and their parents must have been amongst the thousands who went to see the plane when it arrived in Christchurch in 1928. Can you imagine the excitement of that first trans-Tasman flight?

            1. Actually, I’d never even imagined such a thing as a “trans-Tasman flight”. So much to learn, so little time! Thanks for the link, which also was an impetus for me to drag out my copy of Beryl Markham’s “West With the Night.” And I passed the story of Kingsford Smith’s Southern Cross on to my pilot cousin.

            2. Women were adventurous/prominent in the early days of flight, weren’t they? I wonder if there was almost an equality in the skies.

  6. Beautifully written but also very scary as you described the mayhem that ensued when New York City was plunged into darkness. I would have been so afraid. I’m not afraid of darkness in the country but in the city it becomes a different ballgame.

    Again I must say how fortunate that you had parents who taught you so many things and who took you on marvelous adventures. I can’t think of a better way to learn the stars while looking up at the sky. What a wonderful childhood for you.


    1. I do think the sudden and entirely unexpected darkness made things worse that first night, Yvonne. It wasn’t at all like the power loss that comes with a hurricane, where everyone knows it will happen, prepares for it, and helps one another out during the event. There always are some fools who decide that looting’s a good idea, but there are just as many people ready to persuade them of their foolishness, one way or another.

      I don’t frighten easily any more, but I’ve also learned to be much more cautious and alert. Never mind the night — there are places in Houston I wouldn’t go at high noon by myself.

      I wish my parents still were around so I could ask them about all those things they taught me. I have a feeling they often were trying to stay one step ahead of me. Neither had more than a high school education, and yet Dad taught me the stars and Mom read Shakespeare to me. I wonder now if they weren’t studying while I was in bed!


        1. Isn’t that the truth? I’ve always enjoyed the words Flannery O’Connor gave to one of her characters in “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”

          “She had observed that the more education they got, the less they could do. Their father had gone to a one-room schoolhouse through the eighth grade and he could do anything.”

  7. Wonderful story but as always dear Linda, is there any place to watch the night sky :) human world shining in everywhere… and now one watches the sky like once upon a time Aristotle watches… Me, too don’t know about stars… Thank you for this such a beautiful sharing. Love, nia

    1. I was exploring this link to dark sky places, and noticed that there are some in Europe. Perhaps there is one close to you, or close enough that you might experience it one day.

      If not, there still are stars to be seen, even with the nighttime light that surrounds us. And there’s always the moon and planets — I’m especially fond of Venus, because she’s so bright.

      Look up and enjoy! That’s the important thing. And thank you for your sweet comment.


  8. I, too, was there during the blackout in New York City. We lived in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. Our small black and white t.v. flickered. I yelled at my little sister, certain that she’d done something to disturb its reception. She ran crying down the hall while I watched the light bulb above my head dim in brightness and then everything went out. Armed with a flashlight, our family climbed on to the roof of our building and peered out on the street below. Images I remember include a civilian setting out flares and trying to direct traffic in the confusion. The terrified people who had been in the train station or on board a train clambering out of the tunnels. The emergency generators at Methodist Hospital clicked on but we were in a sea of darkness and suddenly the brightest lights in the sky were in New Jersey.

    1. One of the places my friends took me while I was with them was the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. I was right at the edge of your neighborhood, Jennifer.

      I can’t imagine anyone who experienced the blackout ever forgetting it. And to be fair, the other side of the mayhem we saw in the streets was the immediate response of people trying to help each other — like the people with flares, directing traffic. It seems silly in some ways to draw the analogy, but when people got in line to wash up at the fire hydrant, it reminded me a bit of my days at camp when we’d all line up for the showers.

      I had an aunt who lived on West 16th. She married a fellow from New Jersey, but always was a bit ambivalent about the state. After it all was over, I remember her saying, “New Jersey never looked so good.” Context is everything, as they say.

      Thanks for sharing your memories of that remarkable experience.


  9. Reading this this morning is so full of serendipity it feels magical… Just yesterday I took my wife and my eldest daughter for a ride down the lanes of my memories in the town my grandparents lived in when I grew up on the far side of Fort Bend County.

    The story I shared was of a nighttime bike ride on a deserted highway on a moonless night. Back then there were no houses around, no street lights, no cars. The blacktop and the shoulders of the road were vague in the starlight, the fields on both sides were totally black… But, oh my, the sky lives with me still. The Milky Way arching over me on that bowl of diamonds.
    I felt as if I had finally been set free to pedal my way through the heavens… Nothing but me and the stars.

    It was probably one of the best hours of my life…

    Luckily, I did not have to worry about looters.

    1. I’m almost ashamed to admit this, but it’s only while I was reading about Brazoria County history for my Brit Bailey posts that I learned there was an actual fort named Fort Bend. Of course, the subdivision named First Colony makes a little more sense now, too.

      Your tale of that bicycle ride brought to mind ET, bicycling through the skies, and your experience sounds fully as magical. There was a time in my life when I wouldn’t have understood how you could do such a thing – “But how can you SEE?” I would have asked — but once we’ve had the experience, we understand how little light it truly takes to make our way through the world.

      When I was digging around in the link Gallivanta left to the Dark Skies Preserve and the organization that supports them, I discovered that our very own Dripping Springs has won honors for their efforts on behalf of dark skies. Here’s the press release that details their designation as the first International Dark Skies Community in Texas. Reason enough to head for Dripping Springs, I’d think.


  10. I hadn’t seen the painting by Edward Munch — I like it!
    I’ve noticed upon my return visits to Minnesota that rural farms now have bright yard lights on all night. I wonder why. We had a yard light, but we could turn it on as needed with a light switch from the house. why light up the night for no reason, especially out in the country.

    1. Rosemary, Munch has become a bit of a revelation to me over the past two or three years. I’ve seen his “Scream” (and its parodies) so often I’d never explored his other work. I used another of his paintings, “Woman Looking in a Mirror” with another poem. There’s something about his work I find more than usually appealing.

      I don’t know the answer to your question about yard lights, but I suspect it could be summed up in one word: security. Sometimes they’re motion-activated, but the lights are becoming more common down here, too. I’ve read that cattle rustling’s on the increase, along with goat and sheep rustling. That might be reason enough to light up the pens and the yard.


  11. Linda, this is another beautiful piece of writing! I love how picturesque your phrases are, how incredibly exact your depictions.

    As someone whose power goes out regularly — thanks to storms mostly — I know how to deal with being plunged into utter darkness. But I don’t like it! I can only imagine how frightening it must have been, being in The City when the power went out.

    Here, the work crews do their level best to repair the problems (and waylay the complaining phone calls). And rural America, for the most part, feels relatively safe and sane.

    When I lived in Gulfport, MS, the power typically only went out when hurricanes were blowing through. Try living for upwards of two weeks without power — no hot bath, no hair washing, no staying up past sundown, no cooking (unless you could find someone with a gas range!)

    Lovely memories of searching the stars with your dad!

    1. I had to laugh, Debbie. Your description of those weeks without power post-hurricane sounds pretty familiar. I was lucky after Ike. For whatever reason, power was back on at my place within 24 hours, but it was weeks before it came back on in surrounding neighborhoods and towns.

      One of the most touching things I saw when I was driving back into Houston after Ike were the convoys of work trucks, coming in to help out. Honestly, there are times when I wish the people who keep trying to stir us up would just be struck dumb for a few months. It’s easy to forget how many good people there are, with everyone yelling at one another.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the star-watching story. And I thank you for reminding me I really do have to check those Coleman lanterns and such, to be sure everything’s in working order. It is The Season, after all!


  12. Well done, you. This post was so enjoyable on so many levels. I felt the anxiety when the lights went out as if I were living it too. The dark can be a scary place when we don’t expect or want it. I remember lying in a field with my mother watching an August gift of falling stars, grateful for the darkness. Here in Northern California the skies are often filled with fog at that time of year. Orion is my favorite too, and it is the middle name of a great granddaughter.

    You have a fortunate memory of being with your father on so many excursions. Mine was at sea most of the time, though I would have welcomed his companionship in watching the stars.

    The poem was wonderful.

    1. I was thinking about you and your father just recently. I was looking for a photo of something entirely other, and came across an image of a Matson line ship going under the Golden Gate. It still amazes me that the Matson name’s a point of connection between us.

      I love the story of you and your mother lying together, watching the falling stars — the Perseids, I suspect. I very recently learned that, while we’re watching the Perseids, those in the southern hemisphere have the Delta Aquarids to enjoy. Something for everyone, as they say — as long as there’s no fog, or clouds, or city to get in the way.

      I’d completely forgotten that there was a good falling-star song, back in the day. I’ll bet you remember it, too.


      1. Indeed I remember old Perry. A young fellow I had dated came by one evening and told me about a “new” singer who was going to be famous! “His name is Como I think”!

        You and I seem to have several points of connection! Pretty cool.

  13. When New York City goes dark, you realize how loud with light it usually is, don’t you? And on the whole, I’ve not found it so very much fun.

    But a fine sort of dark was that in the Atchafalaya Swamp when we looked out at the night from our houseboat moored in the swamp–though it did mean, when we were invited to go out to dinner in Breaux Bridge, that we wouldn’t be able to find our way home! The solution, in that instance, was for our local friend, who’d always wanted to spend a night out in the swamp, to swap her camp for our houseboat for the night. Even she nearly got lost in that huge moonless dark, but all ended well. That was an unforgettable time, for all the right reasons.

    1. That had to be an extraordinary experience, Susan. Even while I was reading your account of it (so long ago now!) I was thinking, “I’d like to do that, too.” And your recalling of it here is a good reminder that we don’t have to go to the middle of the ocean or the top of a mountain to experience true darkness. The stars may appear more numerous in such places, but half of all the stars that are still is an impressive sight.

      Your mention of the moonless dark reminds me how astronished I was to discover at sea that a full moon can be quite enough light for reading. I never would have believed it, but it’s true — as long as the print isn’t too small.

      I can hear some of my friends saying, “See? SEE? That’s why you need a nice Kindle, with backlighting and such.” But reading by moonlight is pretty special. As you say — unforgettable, for all the right reasons.


      1. You’re reminding me now of a time we were driving on a little-traveled country road in Massachusetts, and the moon was so bright, we put off the headlights for a minute. Moonlight is such a perfect, natural light. We get it up here, too, actually. Always a surprise to see the tree-shadows in the front yard. As for backlight on a Kindle or iPad, no contest! I’ve tried on waking in the wee hours to sit and read with it, and the glare is ferocious (even if dimmed, it’s just not the right kind of light). But yes, the print size, these days, is an issue . . .

  14. I’m reading a book right now titled The End Of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in the Age of Artificial Light by Paul Bogard. I think this is a quote from Van Gogh ” I have loved the stars too much to be afraid of the night” some thing like that do not quote me.

    1. Susan, that quotation was so familiar to me, but I couldn’t find it in Van Gogh (although he had a good bit to say about stars, darkness and such). I went snooping around, and discovered it’s from a poem written by Sarah Williams (English, 1837-1868). The poem is titled “The Old Astronomer to his Pupil”, and it’s apparently pretty famous in astronomical circles.

      Here’s the first verse:

      “Reach me down my Tycho Brahe, I would know him when we meet,
      When I share my later science, sitting humbly at his feet;
      He may know the law of all things, yet be ignorant of how
      We are working to completion, working on from then to now.”

      And it ends with these lines:

      “Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
      I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”

      I hadn’t heard of Bogard’s book, either. Thanks for mentioning it. It certainly looks like a wonderful read.


      1. Linda, thanks for the research on the quote. I like the true version better than the pinterest version. Beautiful poem.

  15. I’m certain the 1977 events in NYC were in the news, but I don’t recall them. Regardless, as a visual person, I’m picturing y’all in the apartment and the mayhem down below. What intrigues me most is that the light acts as a prison for the deviant, like a force field holding them to acceptable mores; but then just let the light fail, and darkness obliterates the invisible force field that held them captive to good behavior. That just amazes me–how evil walks among us, just waiting for the opportune moment to manifest.

    Next, your story prompts me to remember spending many a summer night lying on the cement driveway of our family home, looking at the stars, only able to name the two dippers. Constellations were way too complicated for me. Another memory prompted by your story is my first night spent in a house in a very rural area where there were no street lights. The darkness seemed all-enveloping. It made my spine tingle, and I found it frighteningly delicious!

    I’ve lived in a semi-rural area for 18 years now. As I sit on the front porch late at night, listening to the frogs and cicadas sing their summer symphony and the mullet jumping in the bayou, the two street lights along the highway disrupt the natural experience of the night. Many are the times that I have envisioned shooting out those lights with a bb gun or wishing a bad neighborhood kid would do it for me. Quite honestly, I probably totally missed the entire point of your essay, because it has sparked so many memories of my own . . . which is what wonderful writing does to me!!!! So, great post, one I thoroughly enjoyed for my very own selfish reasons!

    1. terrebonne, that’s such a great insight in your first paragraph. And that’s becoming a problem in our society. People have begun doing in daylight what used to be limited to the night. Personal safety used to be assured if you purchased gas mid-afternoon rather than midnight, even in high-crime-rate neighborhoods. That’s not entirely true, now.

      I’m pretty sure the big dipper was the first constellation I learned. Then came the little dipper, and the north star. I still remember the day I learned Polaris wouldn’t be the pole star forever. It was akin to having Pluto taken off the list of planets, I suppose the experience wasn’t unlike that of those poor people who had to adjust to the fact that the sun doesn’t rotate around the earth.

      I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve heard a sentence like, “Somebody ought to shoot that danged light out.” Of course, a yard light’s one thing. A whole city is something else. Still, I understand the impulse.

      And actually, one of the things I hope my writing will do is spark other people’s memories. If they decide to share some of those memories, as you have, it’s even better. I’d say you got the point perfectly!


  16. The title of Leonard Cohen’s first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, prompts me to say let us compare blackouts. I was in Morningside Heights as a student in 1965 when a blackout hit a little after 5 PM on November 5th. Curiously, we could see that the lights stayed on across the Hudson in New Jersey, so we had no idea how extensive the power outage actually was. In that year I was still traveling home to the suburbs at the end of each class day, but without power the subways couldn’t run, so I started walking down Broadway heading for my uncle’s house in Chelsea, five miles away, where I ended up spending the night. Buses were still running, and I suppose I could’ve taken one, but walking was more of an adventure and it saved a poor student 15¢.

    1. Steve, the first image that came to mind when I read your description of events, and your subsequent walk to Chelsea, was of 9/11, with all of those people walking north.

      Like others who’ve said they didn’t know about the 1977 blackout, I had no idea there was a 1965 blackout. I took a look at the wikipedia article, and found that human error played a role there, too. It was especially interesting to read accounts of the drive-time deejays who were among the first to notice the problems, even though they didn’t know quite what they were seeing.

      The Wiki goes on to say, “Fortunately, a bright full moon lit up the cloudless sky over the entire blackout area, providing some aid for the millions who were suddenly plunged into darkness.” I went back and checked, and found that on July 13, 1977, there was a waning crescent moon, with only 14% of the surface illuminated. What a difference that 86% must have made.

      And then there’s that 15¢. My, how things have changed. My favorite local meat market has been in business for thirty years, and they’ve rolled back some prices to 1984 levels this week. Whole roasting hens for 39¢ per pound, ground chuck and bacon for 99¢, thick-cut ribeyes for $3.99. Quantities are limited, of course.


  17. I was raised in the small Sierra foothill town of Diamond Springs, California where summer meant moving outside, at least for me. At first I slept on the ground but then my grandparents gave me an old army cot. A street light or two broke up the darkness, but that was it.

    Later, like you Linda, I would experience the darkness of Liberia. When I returned from Africa I took up backpacking and would spend several weeks out of the year in the high Sierra Nevada Mountains where the only night lights were the stars and moon.

    Now I live in Southern Oregon surrounded by national forest and when I go out at night there is nothing but the vast sky, stars, moon and an occasional satellite for entertainment. I feel for those who spend their entire lives buried in cities without access to the Heavens. it is like they have lost a valuable piece of their natural heritage. Great blog, as always. –Curt

    1. Curt, you truly have been blessed by the natural world. Of course, you’ve found some creative ways to embed yourself into it, too. I’m thinking particularly of those backpacking trips you led.

      The one thing that’s been nagging at me about our love of darkness, our longing for the stars and the moon as they should be viewed, is the other side of the coin. There are people in places like Liberia who would give anything to have a little light. While I encountered a few at Phebe who were terrified of the light bulbs’ spirits, just as often students sought out places where a single lighted bulb could aid their study. And of course the man with the generator who could show movies was a Very Big Man, indeed.

      We could stand to cut our consumption and turn down the lights, for sure. But I don’t think we have the right, as some have suggested, to deny development and keep entire countries in the dark. Clearly, solar is one option. Have you seen any of the articles about Mercy Womeh? The one I linked has a photo of her at the end, showing her using a solar lamp for studying.

      You probably know more about the NGOs that are promoting solar in Liberia than I do. I’ve been intrigued and impressed by LEN , the Liberian Energy Network. They seem to have a plan and know what they’re doing — not always a given.

      I’ve had one draft in my files about Liberia. Maybe I’ll drag it out. The title? “Watching the Bright Moon Rise.”


      1. I really liked my kerosene lantern in Liberia. And then we moved to a house with electricity. Woohoo!

        And many a night, I’ve read by a candle lantern in my tent, or a head lamp. In summer backpacking, with short nights at my latitude, it is easy to go to bed when the sun goes down and get up when it comes up.

        Liberia lost most of what electricity it had with the civil war and it is still replacing what was lost, slowly. In addition to solar energy (at least during dry season), it also has considerable potential for developing hydro-electric power. I would think there might also be a possibility of wind power in some areas.

        Obama has a multi-billion dollar aid program for energy development in sub-Saharan Africa. I worry about it to the degree it depends on American corporations to implement to. My fear is the focus will be on big solutions with ample opportunity for graft and corruption as opposed to local and individual solutions.

        Refrigeration, in addition to lighting is a major need in the tropics. Cook stoves also would be a blessing.

        I find it interesting that Peace Corps Volunteers living in rural areas don’t have refrigeration now and are cooking with charcoal. I can only wonder why, given that we had kerosene refrigerators and stoves when we were there 1965-67.


        1. Graft and corruption? Say it ain’t so, brother. And that is interesting about the move from kerosene to charcoal. My first thought was that the supply chain got broken during the war. There could be other reasons, of course — some of which could lead straight back to graft and corruption. Still, it seems strange that the Peace Corps wouldn’t be modeling a better practice.

          I still remember my shock when I discovered those bundles of clothing, so lovingly collected by the ladies of the American churches for their missions, being hawked on the streets of Monrovia. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

          1. Certainly Peace Corps has the capacity. The only thing I can think of Linda is the Peace Corps policy about living like the host country people. They can’t get kerosene so the Volunteers can’t either.

            Interesting on the clothes. Paul Theroux made the same observation when he journeyed through East Africa. –Curt

  18. We are so accustomed to light that we are bewildered when it is taken from us. Being totally disconnected from Light Pollution is a magical experience. Two events stand out in my memory. First climbing through the night to the summit of Mont Blanc (the highest peak in the European Alps) – the star-lit sky was unbelievable. Second, another climb through the night to the summit of Kilimanjaro by the light of a three-quarter moon and for the first time noticing that as the moon slid through the sky the orientation of it’s ‘lit’ surface changed, as if the moon had tilted through the night. A thoroughly enjoyable read, Linda.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the tale, and I’m glad you shared your experiences. In your case, the sometimes hackneyed phrase, “mountain-top experience”, really is appropriate. Quite apart from the darkness, there must have been remarkable clarity because of your altitude. And then there’s the experience of the climb itself — it must have been truly wonderful.

      “Bewildered” is such a good word to describe an unexpected plunge into darkness. It’s amazing how many theories can be tried and rejected in about thirty seconds, when we’re trying to sort an experience like that.


  19. Dark sky is comforting and centering to me. We didn’t have electricity for a long time at the farm. It never was frightening – you just learn to see in the dark – and to plan ahead.

    The mountain darkness has the added quality of the cool air – and the wind in the trees. I love it, my daughter gets frightened, but she has always had electricity and mostly subdivision skies. The mountain darkness makes you feel small – like on a sailboat. Here we can see constellations, but it’s growing increasingly brighter at night – Kemah Boardwalk keeps building. Such a loss.

    Wouldn’t like to be in a city if the lights failed – especially now that society is barely civil and lawful with lights. What an experience you had that year in the blackout. What a contrast.

    So many well written phrases in this post, I could hardly name them all. You are such a story teller. (I am attempting that WP writing101 thing – and it’s about to drive me nuts.) Please add “longreads” tag to all your posts. You belong there.

    (If anyone twitters, please read the above and send them a head’s up about Linda. Be a shame to keep her writing all to ourselves.)

    1. I have some sympathy for your daughter, Phil. I can remember my “scared of the dark” phase. I had a second story bedroom, and there were tall trees that cast eerie shadows during the winter. Honestly, I think they reminded me of the trees in Disney’s “Fantasia” — between those trees and the bucket-carrying brooms, I wasn’t eager to go back and see the movie again.

      On the other hand, I dreamed of going up on a mountain and living like Heidi, listening to the wind in the alpine woods. Two sides of the same coin, just like with the darkness.

      As for the Boardwalk, it’s just slightly amusing that, as they build and build, they’re creating the very atmosphere that makes their own Friday night fireworks less impressive. I don’t know if it’s true, but I heard that they’re expanding parking even more, and installing huge lights that will put the ones at the marina to shame. Ah, well.

      I didn’t know about the WP Writing 101 thing. I took a look at a couple of the prompts, and some of the responses. It’s good that they’re providing such structured opportunities, and ways for people to get feedback. It was interesting to read bits of advice offered by some of the gurus, and compare it to some of the convictions I’ve developed.

      I see they’ve changed the tag on me again. I actually managed to remember to add WPLongform to my last post, not realizing that Longreads is the new thing. I’ll try and remember to use it – thanks for the hint!


      1. Wasn’t my favorite movie – although I did like the music.
        When I saw that new/tag, it seemed tailored just for you. Possibly they pick up WPLongform, too
        Sigh, someday maybe I’ll get serious about writing, but, honestly, 101 …had hoped there would be more constructive feedback from some of those who were gurus – but guess they are busy writing for real or on vacation. 101 is time consuming and mostly descriptions/journal entry writings. I keep wandering off of their topics
        Lot’s of fun with the road construction on Marina Bay…just in time for summer traffic. Oh, well hiding from sun anyway. Are you done with the boats for a bit?

        1. Done with the boats? Oh, my. Not just now. If I’m very, very diligent, I may have my current projects finished up by August. That would be very good, indeed. The thought of not working in August is appealing.

  20. We of the electric light generations do not know the dark the way our kerosene lamp-, candle- and fire-lit ancestors did. The dawn has lost a whole dimension for us who never had to wait in fear for the light to return; dusk is no longer the precursor of the dreadful inevitability of inescapable darkness. Mankind paid a lot more attention to the moon waiting for when its light would brighten the night. We have forgotten how like brilliant diamonds strewn on inky velvet the stars are. Because we live in a world that is never really dark, whole generations have lost the stars. The electric light has broken us loose from the cycles of the earth in a way that no previous technology could. We who once were caught in the lockstep of sunrise and sunset, who had to wait out the darkness for day to dawn again can now have day anytime we like with the flick of a switch — That’s what makes it all the more terrible when the lights go out — we’ve never had to cope with night the way our ancestors did.

    1. WOL, I suspect you grew up with some variation of a saying I learned early in my life. My grandparents talked about working from “kin to cain’t” — from when they could see in the morning, until it was too dark for any more work. Of course, by the time I knew them, electricity had arrived in their home and that saying wasn’t strictly true. Still, its meaning was recognizable.

      I do remember the days when farmers left the fields as the last light faded from the sky. Today, a drive through the fields south of here during harvest will reveal the lights of farm equipment, well after dark.. As you say, the ages-long cycles have been broken, perhaps in ways that we don’t fully appreciate.

      And when we have a chance to enjoy the darkness? Well, we’re not always appreciative of that, either. Early this morning, about 5:30 or so, I looked out and saw a strange glow where a bench sits alongside the water. At first, I couldn’t figure out the light, and then I got it. It still was too dark to see the person sitting there, but the light from their Kindle or smart phone was as bright as a lantern.


  21. Linda, I have some great memories of nights without artificial illumination: nights in the Rocky Mountains, nights in the Central Desert, Northern Lights in Northern Alberta. Velvet very well describes these mysteries burning deep in my soul, Sometime I pine for such moments and recall that all it takes is a deep breath, a stilled soul and closed eyes. Soon the velvet curtain falls over me, and this poignant darkness arrives as I slip into memory’s holiness.

    1. The Central Desert stumped me, Allen. I had a sudden vision of you and your camel trekking across the Gobi, but decided that probably wasn’t it. Canada’s a little short on deserts (although I found there are some, including that cold desert!) but I finally decided you meant the Central Desert in Australia. Any desert would do, but if you’ve been able to see the outback, what a wonderful experience that would have been.

      Your mention of slipping back into experiences of darkness just by closing your eyes reminds me of the people I’ve known who feared sleep because they feared the darkness of closed eyes and darker memories. External darkness is one thing, internal quite another. How blessed we are to live easily with both.


  22. How ironic that you were wishing to be back in Liberia, instead of in “civilised” New York. I like that two kinds of darkness, which — come to think of out — I’ve experienced, myself, but had never quite thought about it like that.

    And by the way, this is a timely post for me over here in Chile, where power blackouts occur rather more than I was used to back in Australia. They are usually fixed within two or three hours, although it was in the news today that one of the power companies is being investigated by the government for not providing adequate service. (We have a few emergency lights, of course.)

    I also must say that your post is timely for me in another way, too, as I’ve just started reading Graham Greene’s, Journey Without Maps, which concerns his 1936 travels through Liberia.

    1. Those temporary blackouts aren’t so much of a problem here, although we are moving toward full summer, when the threat of “brown-outs” becomes real as electrical usage increases. There’s a practice known as “rolling blackouts” that occasionally occurs, too. Different areas are taken off the grid for a short time, perhaps an hour or so. I will say there’s nothing that engages the citizenry quite so much as loss of air conditioning in the summer.

      I love that you’re reading “Journey Without Maps.” I was introduced to it during my time in Liberia, and the number of places Greene visited where I also have been is quite amazing. Never mind Paris or Adelaide – I’ve been in Kailahun, Bolahun, Tapita (Tapee-ta), Sanokweli, and ZorZor. In ZorZor, I stayed in the guest house of Margaret Miller, a Lutheran missionary and a tiny bit of an eccentric. Electricity at ZorZor depended on a generator, and was available only a few hours each day. As I recall, it came on at about six p.m. and was turned off at nine or ten. While it was on, Margaret would play classical music on her record player — full blast. It was something, hearing Mendelssohn or Bach reverberating through the bush…

      You’ll want to look at a blog I follow called “Liberian Perspectives.”
      He has some articles about and links to a Dutch photographer named Paul Julien, who followed Greene’s route through Liberia.

      Here’s a link to all of the articles he linked to about Julien. Enjoy!


  23. Hi, Linda. I remember that blackout. The jungle changes at night even if the creatures are of the human sort. The cover of night is appealing to those who would do that which they could not do in the light of day. How quickly the threads of civilization strain.

    We live on the outskirts of the city. Even though our neighborhood was practically new when we moved here, I was pleased to find that there were no street lights, and we’re far enough away from the city for star gazing. There was too much ground light for serious star gazing when we lived in MD. I can still recall lying on my back in the Outer Banks when I was a teenager and looking up at the Milky Way.

    1. The Outer Banks would have been perfect, Bella. The beaches around Galveston still have a little too much light for good star-gazing, but up or down the coast it can be lovely. At the ocean, it always helps that there’s nothing “out there” except for platforms or ships — although some of the platform “cities” off Louisiana can look like Vegas at night.

      Didn’t we do a lot of lying around when we were kids? Watching clouds, watching birds, watching stars. We did a lot of day-dreaming, too. I hear reports that certain of today’s experts think day-dreaming is something that requires medication, or at least a family conference. Poor fools.

      Susan’s comment up above (re: Van Gogh and stars) reminded me of this, from Annie Dillard: “You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary.”


  24. A beautifully written post, Linda. Even though I was observing from afar, I remember that dark night, on the news, and later, Time or was it even Life magazine coverage.

    What I can think of after reading your description of the ‘veneer of civilization’ is the the book The Lord of the Flies. Why, without the thin cloak of order in appearance, with authorities debilitated, humans show their true selves. It’s a mournful night indeed, and yet, they lived through it, and the rest of them must have let out a sigh of relief when the sun rose the next morning.

    I can’t imagine any disaster coming to our cities, if humanity is just a thin veneer of appearance. In contrast, those hanging in there in the subway tubes of London during WWII, in such orderly behaviour, sound asleep as a family, with a bunk for a doll, and such “civilized’ attires, wearing work clothes ready to head back to work the next morning… my hat’s off to them. Don’t think we can duplicate such resilience now.

    1. The important thing to remember is that it isn’t a given that darkness will lead inevitably to chaos and horror.

      The WWII blackouts in places like London are instructive. In New York, the blackout was sudden, unexpected and fearful. During the days when London was camping out in the tubes, the blackouts were planned as part of the war effort. The government provided supplies, and people covered windows, turned off street lights and even fitted cars with special deflectors to make things more difficult for enemy bombers.

      There are some fascinating details in this short summary, including this:

      “People complained bitterly that the Blackout saw crime rocket, particularly petty crime such as pick pocketing and the raiding of vegetable patches… Crime did increase but not as much as people exaggerated. The simple fact is that petty criminals could never be sure if people were at home or not during the Blackout and often thought it better not to take the chance of breaking into houses in case they came face to face with the householder.”

      Given the rationing that was in place, raiding a veggie patch was no small matter. Still, it wasn’t mayhem, and those images you posted of life in the subways pretty much tells the tale. Those folks were tough, resilient, and determined to remain civilized.

      Can we duplicate that resilience now? Of course. I’ve seen it, time after time, particularly in natural disasters. I’m sure you saw it after the terrible floods in your part of the world. I’ll never forget driving from Tyler to Nacogdoches on September 14, just hours after Hurricane Ike slammed ashore and made its way through east Texas on the 13th. We had winds of only about 75-85 mph in Tyler, but Nacogdoches lost power, and great swaths of trees were down everywhere.

      By the time I headed to Nacogdoches, the entire highway had been cleared. Farmers, ranchers and townspeople had gotten busy with their chainsaws, and the felled trees had become neat stacks of wood. Dangling wires were marked, and in every little town, someone already was out by the side of the road with a propane cooker or whatever to make coffee. Sometimes disaster brings out the best, as well as the worst.


  25. Hi Linda. We’ve had quite a few experiences of blackouts in Saint Lucia in the ‘early years’ of electricity generation and the chaos that followed some of those blackouts. Arti’s mention of “The Lord of the Flies” by William Golding is quite apt as it reminds us that a night of darkness isn’t the only thing that can arouse the darkness in our souls.

    I agree, too, with another commenter that we’ve allowed ourselves to become so seduced by the baubles of the modern age we fail to see and hence appreciate the beauty in natural darkness and the skies, moon, and stars at night.

    As usual, another singularly beautiful piece of writing! Your writing not only entertains, it motivates and educates as well. Thanks for another lovely piece.

    1. When it comes to unintended consequences, technology is awash with examples. The good that comes from electricity is clear, but along with it we get mischief in its absence, reality tv shows and the Las Vegas strip. Smart phones offer some terrific advantages, like the apps that allow us to identify stars while we’re viewing them, but of course we have to look up to the heavens as well as into the screen to make that an effective process.

      You’ve reminded me of the most dramatic heavenly sight I’ve ever seen, and it was almost in your neighborhood. I honestly can’t remember now specifically where we were anchored, but we were in the British Virgin Islands. We were sitting on deck, just watching the night sky, when the most extravagant, blue-green meteor appeared. It burned for nearly ten seconds or more, and later we found out it had landed in Arizona. You don’t see things like that, sitting in front of the television!


  26. “There is in God, some say, a deep but dazzling darkness” (from a poem by Henry Vaughan 1621–1695). I loved this post, Linda. Where I grew up, free from light pollution, the dazzling darkness of the night sky entranced me from an early age – and I’m sure were a great part of the inspiration which led me to my subsequent career…

    1. Not only that, I suspect I know where you got the title for your book, Anne. I’ve always liked “Wisps From the Dazzling Darkness,” but I like it even more now that I know of Vaughan’s poem.

      I wonder about the differences between those who grew up as you did, with easy access to natural darkness, and kids who are growing up with darkness almost completely out of reach. Studies here and there are linking the light of iGadgets to everything from poor sleep to weight gain. I’ve seen suggestions that the artificial blue light of the devices just isn’t good. Experts say, “Don’t bring you iPad or iPhone to bed with you.” And I think, “What? Who would do that?” Apparently, lots of people.

      As much as we try to deny it, we’re created, and part of the natural order, which means the natural rhythms of life are ours — including darkness and dawn. To the extent they’ve been lost, we need to reclaim those rhythms.


  27. “Wrapped in that velvet night.” That’s exactly what I think when I’m at the lake — no lights other than perhaps flickering cottage lights, the occasional passing boat. It’s so different than here in the city — and we aren’t even a big city. When we were kids, my cousin David would drive us from his cottage to theirs and turn the lights off — it would totally freak us out! But it wasn’t the dark that scared us — it was David DRIVING in the dark! Even now, when Rick and I go to the old house to use the internet (we don’t have it at our place) we will often walk home in the dark — pitch dark. And yes, we have a light with us. And no, we don’t always use it.

    I remember the black-out but have never heard a first-hand account of it. Once again, you start at point A, go to B or D or P and gently return. Splendid.

    1. Jeanie, you might enjoy the link I left for Arti, up above, about the blackouts in wartime England. One of the biggest problems they had were accidents because of people walking and driving in the dark. There even were strict routines for using a flashlight to hail a bus. As I recall, you shined the light on your feet, to show the driver (1) you were there, and (2) you’d like to ride the bus!

      Of course, London during the Blitz isn’t your wonderful lake, but darkness is darkness, and a little care certainly doesn’t hurt.

      One of the things that fascinated me when I began sailing was learning boat lights: how to tell a sailboat from a barge from a shrimper, and how you can tell which direction a boat’s going from the lights’ appearance and movement. There even were little verses to help with the learning process. My favorite is the verse for a vessel not under command: “Red over red, the Captain is dead.” I’ve always thought that Rodney Crowell’s great “Stars on the Water” could apply as much to lights on vessels as to those in the sky, and I love that you have passing boats to watch at the lake.

      I’m really glad you enjoyed the post. I see there are some wedding photos making their way around, too — I’m eager to really look at them. Just so you know, a quick scroll showed they all were there.


  28. It certainly makes one wonder. What has happened to us that we now need electric lights at night in order to feel safe and to behave? When did NYC get electricity? Was there nightly chaos before then? Here there are people still alive who remember when the power arrived. It was in the late 30s if I recall correctly. An elderly man in the community stopped by the other day and gave me the glass insulators that were on the last pole down the road (the place where the power stopped). He saved them when the poles were replaced and brought them to me because he said he know I liked “old things.”

    Nowadays some of the folks around here have flood lights that burn in their yards all night. I’m not sure why, except that it must make them feel safer.

    I worry about a civilization that is seemingly held together by something like artificial light, and that sees the absence of it as an invitation to come unglued.

    Fortunately here when the power goes out it doesn’t trigger looting. Instead we’ll check on our neighbors to make sure they’re OK and see if they need anything. My guess is that most places would be like that if we didn’t regard electricity as some sort of badge.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    1. Bill, perhaps it’s not what’s happened to us, but what’s happened around us, that makes us feel the need to increase our security. Yard lights at farmsteads are only one sign of a changing society, and that change isn’t always for the better. (Although good insulators fetch quite nice prices!)

      I grew up never locking a door and never knowing a stranger. Over the years, that changed somewhat. In 1979 or so, I ran off a dude breaking into my place with a crowbar. In 1984-ish, I was mugged on the streets of Houston. A month or so ago, some idiot let himself into my apartment for no good reason. None of this instills confidence. It’s even worse for those who live in communities where random, angry violence is the norm.

      Sometimes I think culture, not crime, is the primary problem. Other times, I’m sure of it. Until communities find a way to address that, things aren’t going to improve. Maybe the best way to put it is this: you and I are going to behave in the darkness as we do in the light. Some people are going to misbehave whether it’s midnight or high noon, and their numbers seem to be increasing.

      You did stir my curiosity, and I found that New York got electricity c.1880. There were a lot of developments and changes in the next twenty years in terms of generation and transmission, but the city was pretty well electrified by 1900. In about 150 years, we’ve gone from gaslight to what we have today. Amazing.

      I have noticed some local nature centers offering nighttime activities for kids this summer. That’s a good place to start. No one can appreciate the darkness if they’ve never experienced it.


  29. Personally I think this is one of your most brilliant and poignant posts!! Gave me goose bumps just taking the ride along your memory lane with its quality of darkness. Perhaps it is a true testament of whether man is civilized or not….how he behaves in the darkness.

    Orion always was my favourite constellation too. I remember thinking it looked like a butterfly until I learned more.

    This beautiful writing is just a pleasure to read and dwell upon.

    1. Judy, I’ve never heard anyone say that Orion looked like a butterfly, but now that you have, I can see it. I do wonder what it is that makes Orion a favorite of so many. Perhaps it’s that it is more recognizable, like the Big Dipper. Finding the belt is pretty easy, once you know what you’re looking for.

      I’ve been thinking about all the light/darkness talk here, and only now has it occurred to me what a wonder fire must have been for the earliest people who learned to create and control it. I’m sure figuring out how to cook meat was terrific, but just think how wonderful it would have been to have a way to drive back the darkness — and keep the animals away!

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it, although I must say Eavan’s poem far outshines anything I wrote.


      1. Eavan’s poem is indeed marvelous!! The nature of good writing is so individual and rooted in the way the writer’s mind works, the parallelisms, comparisons and definitions that the writer sees which strikes the reader as beautifully unusual but apt. In his poem I love the sea imagery that ties together the land with a perfect visual…as he does with shadows of house and grass lapping at his feet. Or how he uses a word normally thought of as a negative trait..greed or insatiable desire for wealth….to describe the visceral desire to return to port to home….an avarice for landfall!! A desperate greed but one we can understand…home after being so long at sea. Truly a poem interesting in many ways and one worth turning over in ones mind a time or two.

        However, don’t minimize anything you wrote because, I find no shortage of beautiful moments there. I don’t know, I guess its different when looking at ones own work when admiring the beauty of another without knowing the fits and starts that went into its creation.

        1. Isn’t that true. It’s the old adage about enjoying sausage, but not wanting to see it made, placed into a different context. Speaking of — are you aware of the site called Brain Pickings? There’s a wealth of inspiration, challenge, and thoughtful commentary on the creative process there, and it’s well worth your time.

  30. I agree wholeheartedly with Judy (above): This beautiful writing is just a pleasure to read and dwell upon. I’ve enjoyed and thought about this blog all week.

    1. NumberWise, I’m so glad you enjoyed it. It’s really an amazement to me how words can make a decades-old experience live again. I must say, it can be just as amazing to me how many details I remember from some experiences. I don’t always do well with dates and such. In fact, I had to look up the exact day of this blackout. But the details? Oh, my, yes!

      Thanks for stopping by – I do appreciate it!


  31. What a beautiful blog and a great story teller you are, Linda. True stories, of course.

    Perry Como is singing as I write. His songs must have travelled to Europe a bit later though because I remember him as one of my American idols in my teens. The pictures you showed are superb and Edvard Munch’s painting simply magnificent. Above all it is your writing that I enjoy every time I come for a visit.

    I had never heard of this episode of “Darkness over Manhattan” and I will share your blog with a friend who lived there at that time.

    Stars seen in a desert night sky, in the mountains or at sea must have their own attraction, significance and beauty. To me they are always a great mystery, a world not yet fully discovered and a real enchantment. I loved your post, thank you Linda.

    1. I’m so glad there were so many elements for you to enjoy here, Isa. One of the reasons I enjoy writing these little stories is the opportunity they offer for me to reclaim so many good memories. I begin with my own memory, of course, but the comments and discussion raise many more — like the good Perry Como. His music was such a part of our lives then, and reflected our lives: easy, approachable, nice.

      It’s quite interesting to me that such a “big” event as the blacking out of Manhattan should be unknown to so many people. Age plays a role, of course, since many people today hadn’t yet been born in 1977. Geography also is a factor. Who can blame Europe for paying little attention? There are things happening every day in Switzerland I know nothing about. But for the people who were there, it was extraordinary. I’m sure the mention of it will stir some memories for your friend.

      The stars are compelling. Sometimes they fall into a Van Gogh painting, sometimes they fall into one of your quilts. Lucky us, that no one can accidentally turn out the stars!


  32. On my recent adventurings, I was blessed with a few cloud free nights, to observe the night sky unimpeded by artificial light. It was wonderful to be re-aquainted with it again, in the bush, surrounded by the unsilence of Nature.

    Strong winds last night may have been responsible for the house lights flickering from time to time, and I took a torch with me when I showered. Darkness in a house is very different to that outside. As a teenager, I’d often go riding on my horse late at night, trusting him to find our way safely in the dark and even decades later, I’d go walking with my mare out across the paddocks, knowing she’d sense anything before I could. These creatures taught me much about moving with the senses, and not relying just on light.

    “Catch a falling star” is a long time favourite song of mine.

    1. eremophila, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard someone refer to the “unsilence of nature,” but it’s perfect. It’s my favorite part of what I call open-window weather here. It’s a spring and fall phenomenon, when midnight seems quiet, until you begin listening the night birds, the fish, the frogs.

      The stars must have been beautiful. I’m so glad you were able to get away, and I’m looking forward to finding out where you were.

      We’ll get those flickering lights with strong winds, too. It’s not as bad where I am now, because most lines are buried underground, but many of my friends know to get the flashlight when the flickering begins.

      Speaking of animal senses, every now and then I’ll wake in the night and hear some slight ruckus. We have palmetto bugs – aka tree roaches — that sometimes get into the house. They were especially bad during the drought, and I’d get one every couple of weeks. The great huntress would stalk them in the night, then meow until she woke me. I’d go out to look, and there she’d be, in the dark, with her paw on top of the critter. I suppose I should be glad she didn’t bring them to me.


  33. Ben has told me about the wonder of being in the middle of the ocean standing watch at night on a sailboat and I have experienced the marvel of being 10,000 feet up on Utah’s Mt. Timpanogas on a clear night, but normally we do not appreciate the night’s sky. It is light here until 10 p.m., and then we go to bed, turning off every bit of light we can (the computer, the cable box) and have been tempted to shoot out the light on a neighbor’s pump house because it shines in our window (I do draw the shades).

    Living on on a country acre, however, we are spoiled. The pump house light the only nighttime irritant. But even on clear nights, if we were to venture forth to star gaze, a valley haze is prohibitive. You’ve reminded me how much I need to get in the mountains and sleep in our tent and in the night when I get up to pee, gasp and grin at the night’s sky. Thanks for yet another beautiful post.

    1. Martha, that haze you mention is a problem here, too. It’s not merely the pollution. The humidity really affects viewing. After a strong front rolls through, scouring moisture from the atmosphere, even the lights of the ships and refineries are beautiful. On those nights, we can find some nice skies much closer to home. Sometimes, the planetarium schedules special viewing parties to take advantage of the conditions.

      Mt.Tim was one of the delights of my year in Salt Lake City. It’s wonderful that you had a night there – camping, I presume. I wish I’d taken more advantage of the opportunities around me then — but isn’t that just the way of life? It’s a good reminder to look up, out, and around today, lest ten years down the road we realize we missed out on today’s opportunities.


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